The playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton's first film as a director, Carrington, a project he originated almost 20 years ago, is a slyly entertaining but also moving look at thwarted passion in an age of pyjamas. This is amour fou English style, where the heroine's reaction, seeing her beloved dancing with another, is to say with perfect tenderness, "I wish he'd worn his pullover."
The film is named for Dora Carrington, but could not exist without the presence of Lytton Strachey, whom she met in 1915, or indeed without Jonathan Pryce, who plays the part. This is a great and subtle piece of comic acting; Pryce bears no particular resemblance to Strachey, and doesn't settle for mere impersonation. He is too solid to counterfeit Strachey's spidery emaciation, and the beard he wears is additional to a chin, while Strachey's did duty for both features. Nevertheless, Pryce looks properly unearthly, self-possessed even in sleep, when Carrington sneaks into his room with the intention of cutting off that beard. Against the white pillow, he looks like John the Baptist on a nice clean plate - except that Salome- Delilah has a change of heart.
Jonathan Pryce sensibly avoids vocal mimicry, since all upper-class speakers of the period would now sound to us indistinguishably silly-ass. Strachey was an implacable invalid, someone whose constitution was authentically weak but who knew how to make weakness work for him. In Pryce's performance, the invalidism seems altogether tactical. Yet he does capture the essence of someone only inadvertently and reluctantly lovable, someone with a critique of his society but no exemption from it. Strachey's self-absorption seems infinite, until suddenly it gives way to self-mockery and a certain rueful sensitivity to other people.
The character of Carrington is very much in Emma Thompson's vein, with her pained directness and awkward eagerness to please, except that these qualities are taken to an extreme that is hard not to call masochistic. Carrington devoted herself to Strachey knowing that there was no possibility of conventional sexual communication between them, seeing herself apparently as a sort of human pen-wiper, embroidered with the motto Use Me. Not everything in Thompson's performance is perfect - it seems unlikely that on first meeting Strachey Carrington would say "I wish I'd been born a boy" quite so fiercely, as if it were something she'd only just realised - but she succeeds in suggesting a shyness that persists in intimacy. She grimaces when Strachey looks at a new picture she has done, instinctively distancing herself from something she must know her beloved is likely to like.
Carrington was a considerable painter, but the film doesn't amount to a manifesto on her behalf. Hampton does seem to be trying to have it both ways a bit, though, by using her art in the film as a background element, or indicator of her state of mind, and then turning the closing titles into an exhibition space, displaying her canvases there without human distraction.
In fact, Carrington would work just as well as a film if we only ever saw the back of an easel. In a strange way, the heroine's predicament seems modern, and it is the arrangements of her Bloomsbury contemporaries that seem fatuous or naive. At the time, Carrington's refusal of orthodox fulfilment made her seem to them like an aberration or a wilful throw- back to exactly the Victorianism they rejected, but as a culture we have lived with sexual emancipation without emotional progress for long enough to accept that all the routes to happiness are devious, and none guaranteed. The most intense passion can be subtly disappointing, and the most abject affection can be somehow sustaining.
In the course of the film, we see a bohemian household expand and contract to accommodate a bewildering variety of demands: people who want everything from each other, or one thing, or everything but one thing, or a different world in the country at weekends from what they have in town during the week. And just as there is more than one kind of love, so there is more than one sort of fidelity, jealousy, betrayal, wisdom. Sometimes the equations get complicated, but "Lytton plus Carrington" is a constant underlying all the romantic mathematics.
Christopher Hampton directs actors well, but isn't quite so assured with the camera. Sometimes he moves it just to show that he hasn't forgotten it, and his more elaborate shots, snaking inside a cafe, or craning up from the side of a river - don't yet repay the effort. He adopts as a rather frustrating mannerism a blackout at moments of great significance for Carrington: the moment when she abandons the Lytton-shearing in his bedroom, a moment when she is alone in the street and could follow either Lytton or Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell), or an evening at Ham Spray House when she watches the couples she is entertaining preparing for bed as if wondering where if anywhere she fits in. Audiences will be sufficiently engaged with Carrington to feel cheated by the inconclusiveness of blackout.
Michael Nyman contributes his most lyrical score to date, based on his own Third Quartet. He considered reworking Schubert's C major Quintet, but decided it was too perfect to alter (a compliment that Purcell and Mozart, among others, might covet). So the film ends with a lengthy extract from the Schubert, lending the final sequence a serene extremity that Hampton can't yet achieve with images and visual rhythms unaided. Nevertheless, those who see Carrington will find themselves agreeing with what Strachey says after being assaulted by a madly jealous Gertler - "That was all rather thrilling" - while mildly dissenting from what he says next: "Anything more cinematographic could scarcely be imagined."
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